Tens of millions of people visit Florida each year from all over the world. They come for theme parks. They come for sun. They come for sand. Most do not visit the best Florida art museums.

Those visiting Florida for art, largely do so to attend Art Basel Miami Beach – the top contemporary art fair in the Americas – the first week of each December.

Florida’s art scene, however, has more to offer than Basel’s one week spree and features numerous world class art museums generally overlooked by visitors and residents alike. Here are the best Florida art museums, my favorites.

My Best Florida Art Museums guide is not comprehensive. It includes only the museums I’ve personally visited. There are dozens more large and small in every corner of the state. You can visit each of them using a reliable limo service

Art Museums in Jacksonville Florida

+ Northeast Florida

Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in.
Mildred Thompson (American, 1936 – 2003), Magnetic Fields, 1991, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ x 95 ½ in. Purchased with funds from the Rushton William Hays Revocable Trust and the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2019.1.1 ART AND PHOTO © THE MILDRED THOMPSON ESTATE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Northeast Florida is called the “First Coast” both because it’s the first part of Florida visitors from the north traveling along I-95 encounter as well as being site of the first continuously inhabited European settlement in what would come to be known as America – St. Augustine.

If Northeast Florida is the First Coast, then the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens is the “first museum.” This is my hometown museum which I’ve come to adore. Highlights include the work of a pair of Jacksonville natives: Harlem Renaissance pillar Augusta Savage and Mildred Thompson. Thompson’s Magnetic Fields (1991) serves as my avatar across the See Great Art social media channels and is my favorite work in the collection.

The various gardens located along the St. John’s River behind the museum serve as another highlight.

TO DO: The Lightner Museum in St. Augustine.

Miami Florida Art Museums

+ South Florida and the Palm Beaches

Kehinde Wiley, 'Sleep," 2008, on view inside Rubell Museum in Miami.
Kehinde Wiley, ‘Sleep,” 2008, on view inside Rubell Museum in Miami.

South Florida, and Miami in particular, represents the unquestioned epicenter of the arts in Florida. In the past 20 years, Miami has evolved into one of the leading destinations for contemporary art in the world, using the boost from Art Basel Miami Beach which first arrived there in 2002. Art Basel Miami Beach is now the most celebrated art fair outside of Europe and the entire region’s art scene has been lifted as a result.

Art Basel and Miami Art Week, which runs simultaneously, last only a few days and an arts community can’t survive on one week of feasting. Miami’s art museums keep its momentum churning year-round.

The Rubell Museum shows off the treasures compiled over a lifetime by mega-collectors Don and Mera Rubell. The collection features a who’s-who of contemporary Black artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Rashid Johnson, Kehinde Wiley, Tschabalala Self and Amoako Boafo.  

A major presentation of Keith Haring’s artwork also highlights the Rubell which is the best Florida art museums for Contemporary art, likely the best in the Southeast.

Formerly the Miami Art Museum, the museum was formally renamed the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade County – PAMM for short – in 2013 to honor another mega-collector and benefactor Jorge M. Pérez. Specializing in Modern and Contemporary Art, PAMM also emphasizes art from Latin America with many pieces from Pérez’ collection on display.

PAMM’s setting along stunning Biscayne Bay makes for a wonderful stroll before or after enjoying the museum. Brunch at the on-site restaurant overlooking the water should be in your plans.

El Espacio 23 began as overflow storage for Pérez’ collection. Someone had the bright idea to open up the space to the public, hang the work and stage exhibitions. Contemporary art with Latin flavor again serves as the calling card for this space located 1.5 miles from the Rubell Museum in the Allapattah neighborhood.  

Wolfsonian – FIU located in the heart of the Art Deco District in Miami Beach proves bigger isn’t always better. A tidy space with an unusually good gift shop, the museum, aligned with Florida International University – regularly offers temporary exhibitions that would be the pride of much larger institutions. A hidden gem.

The Museum of Graffiti in the heart of the famed Wynwood neighborhood, with nearby Wynwood Walls being a global pilgrimage site for lovers of graffiti and street art, tells the story of how graffiti evolved from “vandalism” into the most popular art form in the world.

ICA Miami (Institute of Contemporary Art) presents the vanguard of the vanguard in its stylish Miami Design District building.

Miami Beach’s Contemporary art museum, the Bass Museum of Art, hits its stride with room-filling installations of challenging and provocative pieces.

West Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art has the Southeast’s premiere collection of Modern art for my money. The best I’ve seen, anyhow. Early Picasso, iconic Monet, a magnificent Cézanne portrait, a huge Léger, a strange Matisse, Pollock, the Norton’s collection of Modern art’s biggest names goes way beyond the typical offerings.

Norton Museum of Art Claes Oldenburg, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999
Norton Museum of Art Claes Oldenburg, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1999

The coup de grâce, however, is Paul Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889). One of a handful of the most important paintings from his career, the self-portrait headlines exhibitions around the world and, as a result, regularly leaves the Norton. I think it’s the most important piece of Modern art in Florida, perhaps the South.

The Norton has an exceptional collection of Contemporary art as well to go along with a robust exhibition calendar.

The Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens are more garden than museum, but the scale of her sculptures in addition to her restored studio and an exhibition program deserves inclusion on among the best Florida art museums. The grounds are spectacular!

North of the Palm Beaches by 70 miles, Ft. Pierce owns the state’s most legendary artistic heritage as home to the Florida Highwaymen. The original 26 Highwaymen painters were not officially associated as a group, but all worked out of this area during their peak from the 1950s through the 1980s. First and second generation Highwaymen continue painting in Ft. Pierce today.

The Highwaymen’s great advocate was A. E. Backus, a famed Florida landscape painter from Ft. Pierce in his own right. Backus’ style highly influenced the scenic, rural imagery made famous by the Highwaymen, and while he only formally mentored Alfred Hair, he was a constant supporter, friend and aide to the artists whenever he could be – a rarity for a white man in Jim Crow Florida.

The A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery in Ft. Pierce shares this history along with his artwork – including paintings for sale!

TO DO: The Society of the Four Arts

Tampa and St. Petersburg Art Museums

+ Southwest Florida

Tony Abeyta, Untitled, on view at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. CHADD SCOTT
Tony Abeyta, Untitled, on view at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. CHADD SCOTT

The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art introduced me to my favorite artist, Earl Biss. For that, I will always be in its debt. The James is one of only two museums in the Southeast – along with Cartersville, Georgia’s Booth Western Art Museum – focused on this genre.

The James houses the personal collection of longtime Raymond James financial services CEO Tom James, items acquired over decades of collecting which began in the ’80s during ski trips out West. The focus here is contemporary Western art with highlights, in addition to Biss, being fellow Indigenous artists Tony Abeyta, Fritz Scholder, Shonto Begay and John Nieto.

The James also displays an astonishing Native American jewelry collection.

The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg stands as the grande dame of the St. Pete arts scene. Located downtown on the waterfront, this encyclopedic museum houses an especially prominent collection of antiquities.

St. Pete is surging as a national arts destination and the Dalí Museum moving into its stunning Surrealist building in 2011 served as the catalyst. The Dalí houses the largest collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain and presents an ambitious exhibition program.

The Chihuly Collection showcases astonishing, room-filling installations by the world’s most famous glass artists, Dale Chihuly.

The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement opened in Fall of 2021 as the state’s only museum dedicated to the movement which swept the nation between the 1890s and 1930s in response to the inelegance of objects mass produced by the Industrial Revolution. The building and atrium create the strongest impression.

The Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art gives visitors a good reason to explore one of the most delightful corners of Florida: Tarpon Springs.

South of Tampa Bay, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota displays the collection of circus magnate John Ringling. While the Ringling does present Contemporary and Modern art, this is the best Florida art museum for Baroque paintings with a heavy-hitters list of artists hard to find in Florida including Diego Velasquez, Peter Paul Rubens, El Greco, Van Dyck, Veronese, Tiepolo and more.

In 2023, I finally made my way to the Tampa Museum of Art for its astonishing full-gallery installation of Purvis Young paintings. The show is on view through June of 2024.

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Orlando Florida art museums

+ Central Florida

Bisa Butler quilt portrait, Wangari Maathai, 2020. Quilted wax print fabric. Orlando Museum of Art.
Bisa Butler quilt portrait, Wangari Maathai, 2020. Quilted wax print fabric. Orlando Museum of Art.

Yes, a person could legitimately visit Orlando for the art scene and never step foot at Disney, Universal or Sea World. Orlando’s art museums, despite being utterly overshadowed by the theme parks, acquit themselves well for a major American city. I have written a complete guide to Orlando museums of art.

The Orlando Museum of Art has an excellent collection of work by contemporary Black artists including a massive Kerry James Marshall piece, a Nick Cave Soundsuit and a Bisa Butler quilt portrait. The OMA, however, will spend a generation trying to live down the shame of exhibiting phony Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings in 2022.

Formerly the Cornell Arts Museum, the Rollins Museum of Art was rechristened in 2021. The museum pairs the state’s only permanent collection of Old Master paintings with a new emphasis on Contemporary art from Puerto Rico. The Alfond Inn nearby shares the contemporary collection.

The fantastical paintings of Earl Cunningham make the Manello Museum of American Art worth your time.

In Lakeland, Florida between Orlando and Tampa, the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College offers a surprisingly strong and consistent program of temporary exhibitions. The campus also has the largest single-site concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world.

TO DO: The Morse Museum for Louis Tiffany.

University of Florida Art Museum

Harold Newton (1934-1994), Beach Scene, undated. Oil on canvas. Vickers Collection Harn Museum
Harold Newton (1934-1994), Beach Scene, undated. Oil on canvas. Vickers Collection Harn Museum

The encyclopedic Harn Museum of Art on the campus at the University of Florida in Gainesville elevated itself to another echelon with the acquisition of the Vicker’s Collection of Florida art in 2019. 40 years of collecting Florida-related artwork is represented here providing unlimited opportunities to share deep, meaningful stories about the state, making this the best Florida art museums for art about Florida.